Hoax story sparks soul-searching among nation's media
Newspapers routinely expose scandals in their communities. Now the spotlight is turned on them as journalists assess the effects of a Pulitzer Prize-winning feature that turned out to be a hoax.Skip to next paragraph
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Editors interviewed by the Monitor say they are reviewing all their practices -- from checking on the purported degrees and experience of new reporters to the professional rules developed through long tradition.
Writer Janet Cooke had told her story of "Jimmy," an eight-year-old heroin addict, on Page One of the Washington Post and won journalism's highest award before admitting that Jimmy did not exist.
"This points a finger at all of us," says John Hunter, associate editor of the Madison (Wis.) Capitol Times.
"It raises the question of 'Can you believe what you read in a newspaper?'" says James Gannon, editor of the Des Moines Register and Tribune. "Now you have this famous case where the answer is, 'No, you shouldn't have believed that.'"
Indeed, this may be the most lasting effect of the Pulitzer debacle, says John H. Ullmann, executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors, a 15 ,000-member association with headquarters at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. "That will stick in peoples' minds for a long, long time. They will wonder, 'What liberties did the reporter take?' This is damaging because most reporters take no liberties."
As a major feature story that was entirely faked, "Jimmy" is an "isolated incident," Mr. Ullmann says. But he points out that a recent article in the Columbia Journalism Review included admissions by some reporters that they had made up quotes.
Most editors and press experts focus on the Post editors' failure to compel Ms. Cooke to disclose her sources -- especially after the veracity of her account was questioned by others on the staff and by public officials. Initially, editors asked her about her sources. But they backed off after she said she had been threatened with death if she revealed her sources.
"The editor stands between the reporter and the reader," says Howard Bray, executive director for the Fund for Investigative Journalism in Washington. His organization gives about $100,000 a year in grants to reporters. "A reporter, in my judgement, has not breached confidence with a source by identifying the source to the editor."
David Weir, cofounder of the Center for Investigative Reporting in Oakland, Calif., stopped short of that rule."The editor has a responsibility to have access to some of the information" about sources, he says. Some reporters fear that an editor might betray the secret, he adds, but an editor can ask to see notes with names deleted or to hear tapes.
Many editors already insist on strict verification for investigative stories that, unlike the "Jimmy" feature, could trigger libel suits. Mr. Weir says the Cooke episode will not change that. What may change, he says, is that "papers might review their personnel records." (The "Jimmy" fabrication was uncovered after it was discovered that Ms. Cooke had falsified her educational credentials.)
The Post itself turned its ombudsman, Bill Green, loose to uncover what went wrong. Mr. Green's report found the Post's handling of the story "inexcusable."
"The Scramble for journalistic prizes is poisonous," Green concluded. "The obligation is to inform readers. Maybe the Post should consider not entering contests."
In letters published in the Post April 18, several readers poured out their skepticism for that newspaper and the press in general. "Perhaps it's time the press, and certainly The Post, shed the self-righteous attitude and cleaned up its act," said one letter. Another quoted the admonition to "believe none of what you read and only half of what you see."
Criticism has been equally biting from other papers.
"When a reputable newspaper lies, it poisons the community," editorialized the New York Times. And the Baltimore Sun warned that if reporters and editors overreach "there will be assaults on the First Amendment that, in the end, could erode the public's right to know."
Stephen Hess, a Brookings Institution researcher who has just published a study on the Washington press, points to a broader trend of looser editorial control. "My own research on how Washington reporters operate shows that editorial control has slipped from the proprietors to the editors and no is slipping from the editors to the reporters."
"The unattributed source is running rampant in this city," says Mr. Hess. "We see it all over the country, but it's reached a fever pitch in Washington." In his study, he found 28 percent of reporters' interviews were off the record or on a background basis.